Schools Operating as “Islands” with no Bridges to the “Mainland (Communities)”

Schools Operating as “Islands” with no Bridges to the “Mainland (Communities)”

In the past two years I have had to visit schools in different communities within the Gauteng province in South Africa. As I moved from one school to the next it became obvious that South African schools continue to experience challenges at multiple levels. The obvious challenge was that as noted by Adelman and Taylor (2007, p. 7) “Schools are located in communities, but are often “islands” with no bridges to the “mainland”.  In short there is lack of meaningful interaction between schools and parents despite a strong positive correlation and overarching premise that parent involvement is the most important indicator of student achievement. Evidently, a productive interaction between schools and parents is important, thus, schools cannot exist as islands in communities (Adelman and Taylor 2007; Jehl, 2007).  Research has shown that there is strong correlation between functioning schools and community engagement in schools.  Hence, there is a great need to link communities and schools to enhance learners’ educational attainment and improve use of resources.

The current situation whereby schools are operating in isolation within communities and sociocultural systems is of concern. In the South African context some of the major challenges are absenteeism (of both educators and learners), low staff morale, learner discipline and in most cases lack of resources. These issues are not unique to South Africa but also exist in developed countries like the United States of America. From the look of things the ‘kernel of the problem’ lies in the broken relationship between parents and the schools where their children are attending.

According to Jehl (2007) by “strengthening community organizations and connecting them to schools all young people in tough neighbourhoods will achieve the aspiration that their families have for them: to graduate from school prepared for adult success and well-being in the worlds of work, family, and citizenship” (p. 3). Jehl (2007) goes on to affirm that partnerships between schools, families, and community organizations can improve learners’ performance and help them transition across different developmental levels.

Now given that we have a very high youth unemployment rate there is a great need to keep learners in the school system until they graduate instead of them leaving and joining the unemployed youth. According to Rusznyak (2014), “data from the census estimates that only 48% of students who begin Grade 1 actually complete Grade 12.” That means about 52% of learners drop out of the school system before completing Grade 12/matric. Such an alarming dropout rate constrains the country in its efforts to realizing real economic growth and an acceptable quality of life for all South Africans. Given such statistics, the consistent upward trend in the matric results could not be used as the only indicator of a working school system when about 52% of pupils do not sit for their matric exams.

As I engage with different schools and the matric results I was not moved by the hype associated with the pass rate. As a researcher I began to study under-performing schools to get to the ‘kernel of the problem’. Given such a poor retention rate of learners it was clear that the matric exam is designed to compare the performance of learners who sit for the exam yearly. Therefore, correlating the pass rate to functioning schools alone was not enough. The missing piece in the puzzle is parental involvement in the education of their children, yet there is an inevitable “link between parents’ involvement activities and students’ proximal achievement outcomes” (Ice & Hoover-Dempsey, 2011, p. 343).  To illustrate this, it is important to reiterate the words of the Honourable President Jacob Gadleyihlekisa Zuma in 2008 calling for elevating education into a societal issue:

Education must be elevated from being a Departmental or Governmental issue into a societal issue. Teachers should be in class, on time, teaching, with no neglect of duty and no abuse of pupils! The children should be in class on time, learning, be respectful of their teachers and each other and do their homework. Other sectors, including officials and parents, are also expected to play their respective roles in reaching this goal.

The schooling system suffers from social forces which in turn influence patterns of social behaviour including, but not limited to absenteeism by learners and teachers. The social behaviour is a result of many factors including poverty, racism, sexism and negative attitudes towards school (South Africa: National Report on the Development of Education, 2008). Furthermore time and distance continue to be a barrier to facilitate a continuous interaction between schools and parents especially in low-income neighbourhoods where parents are juggling many responsibilities with limited financial resources.

Therefore, there is a need for innovative strategies to unlock the space for parents, teachers and learners to engage in educational development. The South African National Development Plan (NDP) states: “The priorities in basic education are human capacity, school management, district support, infrastructure and results-oriented mutual accountability between schools and communities.”

In order to realize change in schools, communities (parents) need to actively play their role so that issues of lack of attendance for instance are eradicated. In the current situation enrolment numbers are misleading because they do not translate into attendance (Monitoring and Evaluation Report, 2006). A true reflection of attendance would be better measured by making sure that learners are at school and in class on time. The hope is that they will eventually matriculate and then pursue tertiary education. However, for learners to successful pursue tertiary education they must develop certain “sets of behaviours, skills, attitudes, and strategies” beyond content knowledge (Farrington et al., 2012, p. 2).

In 2009 President Zuma during the State of the Nation address said “We want our teachers, learners and parents to work together with government to turn our schools into thriving centres of excellence.” Given that the schools operate within a highly unequal society, it is important that Government Officials, School Governors, School Principals, School Teachers, Learners and the Community (Parents) are all committed to the Code of Quality Education enshrined in the Kliptown Pledges.

Studies have shown that the relationship between the two major institutions (Families and Schools) of learning is important in the educational development of children (Booth & Dunn, 1996; Blanchard, 1998; Scott-Jones, 1995; Steinburg, 1996; U.S. Department of Education, 1994). Thus, arguing for family-school meaningful interaction and parents-school connection to increase parent involvement in their children learning process.

Reuben Dlamini is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum contributor. Please read his short biography and previous articles here.


Adelman, H. S., & Taylor, L. (2007). Systemic change for school improvement. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 17(1), 55-77.

Blanchard, J. (1998). The family-school connection and technology. ERIC Clearinghouse.

Booth, A., & Dunn, J. (Eds.). (1996). Family–school links: How do they affect educational outcomes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance–A Critical Literature Review. Consortium on Chicago School Research. 1313 East 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.

Jehl, J. (2007). Connecting Schools, Families, and Communities: Stories and Results from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Education Investments.

Rusznyak, L. (May 7, 2014). South African Education still Fails many 20 years after Apartheid. The Conversation.

Scott-Jones, D. (1995). Parent–child interactions and school achievement. In B. Ryan, G. Adams, T. Gullotta, R. Weissberg, & R. Hampton (Eds.), The family school connection (pp. 75-107). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the classroom. New York: Simon & Schuster.

U.S. Department of Education. (1994). Strong families, strong schools. Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 371909)

Reuben Dlamini

Reuben Dlamini is an Academic Technology Consultant at the Information Technology & Services Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA.

One Response to Schools Operating as “Islands” with no Bridges to the “Mainland (Communities)”

  1. Hi Reuben, Thanks for the insightful piece. I agree with you. I wanted to ask, do you think one of the reasons for the disconnect might be the absence of a bridge from school to career? I feel like, at least during my days, the curriculum did not mirror the real life jobs.

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